Some of the best historical novels are the ones that illuminate an event or place or period you knew nothing about, so you feel you’ve learned something new. Three of the newer historical novels at The Field Library this month do just that: take you to a new experience and bring it to life.
Anita Shreve’s newest book, The Stars are Fire, starts with an ordinary young woman living in Maine in 1947. Grace is married, not unhappily, and has two young children and is pregnant with a third. She has a close friend, Rosie, also a young mother, living nearby, and Grace is more or less content with her life, until her whole world is upended by the largest fire in the history of Maine, which changes nearly everything in Grace’s life: her husband leaves her to join the other men in attempting to stop the fire, her home and Rosie’s home burn to the ground, along with most of their town. It’s all she and Rosie can do to keep themselves and their children alive, and in the aftermath of the fire, Grace has to start over: penniless, homeless, facing devastation all around her, but also discovering new strengths and new freedoms.
There are two women protagonists in The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron. Though they are separated by 40,000 years and never actually meet each other, their lives are joined together by some experiences they have in common. Girl, the Neanderthal of the title, is trying to survive in a harsh and unforgiving environment that has already killed off most of her people, when she finds herself alone with a foundling of unknown origin, whom she calls Runt, and the two of them have to figure out how to survive the winter storms that could kill them both. In the modern era, Rosamund Gale, a paleoanthropologist, discovers the bones of a female neanderthal buried with a homo sapiens male, a find that could answer questions she’s been struggling with about the extinction of the neanderthals and the possible role homo sapiens played in that extinction. The two women have more in common than either of them could imagine in this novel that speculates about what it could have been like for our ancestors and what it is that makes us human.
The Palestinian family in Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan, is about to be swept away by the tides of history. On the eve of her daughter’s wedding, Salma, the family matriarch, reads the dregs of a coffee cup to discern her daughter’s future: she sees an unsettled life, travel, and luck. Not exactly the best things to tell a bride on the verge of her wedding, so Salma keeps her predictions to herself, but they come true when the Six Day War uproots the family and scatters them from their home in Nablus. Salma’s son is drawn into a militarized world he can’t escape from, and Alia, the bride, and her gentle husband move to Kuwait City to build a new life for themselves. Unfortunately, when Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait , Alia and her family lose everything: their home, their land and their story. Her children end up in Beirut, Paris, Boston, and beyond, learning the hard way that assimilation is never easy and you really can’t go home again.